I have read a great many books about The Shoah – The Holocaust – World War II. I’ve studied the period from an historical period, I’ve read memoirs and poetry, I’ve seen paintings. I’ve watched documentaries about Hitler, about the camps, about the German people. I’ve visited museums in New York, Washington, Sydney and of course, Yad Vashem, in Israel. I’ve done courses at university, with experts. I’ve swum the deep, dark ocean of this period until I thought I could swim no more and then I stopped. For the longest time I just couldn’t. I couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t think anymore. I couldn’t breath the fumes of this period. I was done. I had drowned in the Holocaust.
That was quite some time ago and the self imposed silence has left me with a renewed passion for different expressions and perspectives about this time. I have been fascinated by writers like Caroline Moorehead, whose book ‘A Train in Winter‘ will never leave me. I was intrigued by the film ‘Life is Beautiful’ – that humour and life could exist in the midst of this darkness – and more recently, by the words of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer as recorded by Sara Yocheved Rigler in her book ‘Holy Woman‘. A survivor of Auschwitz, the Rebbetzin was adamant that “Aushwitz was not a bad place … A bad place is where Jews can observe mitzvot (commandments from God), but don’t do them.” I struggle to comprehend the depth of her faith. It’s not something I will ever be great enough to embrace.
In all my trawling of Holocaust texts and expression, while I am always humbled by people like Rebbetzin Kramer and others who manage to rise above the tragedy and the incomprehensible inhumanity, I can’t remember ever encountering a book like ‘The Boy on the Wooden Box’ by Leon Leyson. In the past, Holocaust accounts have shocked me, they have numbed me, they have stunned me and they have left me in awe; but never have they reached into me, touched my heart and left me breathless. Never have I felt so utterly honoured to be allowed into the world of a survivor.
Leyson’s memoir is like a light passing through a crystal that stuns you momentarily, leaves you blinking and then blinds you with rays of colours. As I read his words, I found myself needing to know him, needing to know that he was still alive and that I might, by some small chance, have the opportunity to meet him, to sit in the dust at his feet and hear his voice tell his story. When I discovered that he had died before he knew that this book was to be published I was overwhelmed by such deep sadness because it was so clear to me that his was a voice that should never die. Here was a great man who spent so many years of his life in silence and then found his voice and devoted himself to educating the world about all that he had witnessed. Once he started, Leyson never stopped telling his story and honouring all of those whose voices were snuffed out by Hitler’s campaign against the Jews and those he deemed not pure enough to live in his world.
There were many things that startled me about this book and I won’t go into them in detail because, quite simply, you all need to read this book. You owe it to Leon and his family to know his story as he tells it. What I will share is this: Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. I heard many fascinating speakers and was suitably entertained by their wit and the extent of their varied acccomplishments. One of the stand out writers and speakers was Jennifer Teege. In her 20’s Teege, a Black German woman, discovered that her grandfather was none other than the Nazi Amon Goeth. This meant nothing more to me than what Teege explained in her talk – I hadn’t read the book, I knew nothing about Teege and I had never encountered Goeth in my Holocaust travels. Teege spoke magnificently and bravely about how her life was impacted by her discovery of her grandfather’s identity. She spoke about the journey she had to make to survive this discovery and how important Hollywood films like Schindler’s List are to educating the world about the Holocaust.
I’ve never seen Schindler’s List – it came out in my silent period when I couldn’t bear to know any more than I already did. But Teege mentioned the film and she mentioned that her grandfather was the Nazi who played opposite Schindler. I paid the comment very little attention at the time; however, in reading Leyson’s book, I gained a whole new perspective into the true tragedy of Teege’s heritage.
Leyson mentions Goeth frequently. Readers can feel him quake as he holds his breath when Goeth comes near. He recounts countless instances where he was almost killed by Goeth’s fleeting whims of cruelty. The shudder that lies beneath Leyson’s descriptions gave me a deeper appreciation for the depression which Teege suffered when she learned about her grandfather.
At yet, here was Teege, a majestic woman who spoke so passionately about Israel and about the need to keep telling the story. How I wished that Leon Leyson had lived long enough to meet Jennifer Teege.
There are many great people in this world. Many voices that are worth hearing. In my journey through ‘The Boy on the Wooden Box’ I feel as though I have come to know a few more of these voices. Leon Leyson was the youngest person on Schindler’s List. It is because of Oskar Schindler that Leon, two of his siblings and his parents survived the Holocaust and lived on to create new lives for themselves far away from the horrors of Poland and Europe.
Oskar Schindler, I thank you for saving Leon. I thank you for allowing his voice to live on and his story to be told. I am humbled by your courage and by your ability to stand before monsters like Amon Goeth and play the charade which led you to save all of those people who made it on to Schindler’s List. It is apt that you are buried in Jerusalem on Mount Herzl, the Mount of Remembrance, Israel’s national cemetary, along with so many other heroes of the Jewish people.
Leon Leyson, I cannot begin to convey how honoured I am that you chose to share your story and that I was lucky enough to read it. Yours is the voice that I will carry with me as I move through the world.